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Ladies of a Certain Age

Posted: 26th March 2015
Ladies of a Certain Age

A little one-hour gem in the glittering array of events at the 2012 Jane Austen Festival, Lucy Adlington’s History Wardrobe show ‘Ladies of a Certain Age’ sketched an informative and touching background to the older female characters in Jane Austen’s oeuvre.

The History Wardrobe talks aim to ‘teach history through fashion’, and Lucy Adlington, a specialist in costume history and collector of nineteenth and twentieth-century clothes, with fifteen years’ experience of running hands-on history workshops, was definitely the woman for the Jane Austen Festival job.


In the pleasantly intimate Georgian setting of Bath’s Theatre Royal, Lucy educated, moved and above all entertained her audience with a lively and comical performance. Drawing on wide-ranging and substantial research, from a comic poem by Jane Austen’s mother Cassandra to a Georgian physician’s advice on dealing with ‘The Change’, and with plentiful reference to Jane Austen’s own novels, she built up a sense of the role and position of aging women in the Georgian period, as well as Jane Austen’s treatment of them.


Unlike many of her contemporaries and even her own mother, Jane Austen herself resists the popular impulse to mock the aging spinster. Traditionally, as Lucy points out, ‘spinster’ merely meant ‘a woman of marriageable age who is not married’, but the term soon grew into an insult applied to women like Miss Bates.


However, the crux of the matter comes to the fore in Emma: a spinster was only ridiculous if she was poor. And, Lucy suggests, perhaps something of Jane Austen’s own experience as an impoverished, single woman growing older shines through in her creation of Mr Knightley, the hero who stands up for a poor old maid.

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On the whole, in Jane Austen’s work, wives, widows and mothers often come off looking more ridiculous than spinsters: even Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for all her rank and wealth, is routed by the young, unmarried and relatively poor Miss Elizabeth Bennet.


Thus, perhaps the choice of getting married or not is more difficult than it may appear: after all, who would not 

agree with Lizzy that one had better stay single than marry Mr Collins? It becomes clear once again that there is more than a love story at the heart of Jane Austen’s novels, for in a world where marriage was at once the height of a woman’s ambition, but also the moment when she lost all her legal and financial independence, it was of crucial importance than one married the right man. And what if you didn’t meet a Mr Darcy…?

This complicated social background was brought to life by Lucy’s liberal use of costume and props – a turban for 

many others. Lady Catherine, a miser’s purse for Miss Bates, a lacy shawl and even a pug dog for Lady Bertram – and her animated readings of passages from Jane Austen and quotations from Mary Wollstonecraft, Benjamin Franklin and 


Frequent reference to her own experience, and even a flying leap to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café created a contemporary setting and a sense of fellow-feeling with the Georgian women of Jane Austen’s fiction. A valuable hour spent in stitches.


Featured image: Lucy Adlington in Ladies of a Certain Age, via the History Wardrobe.



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